Chapter 13: Bread 'n' Roses

Submitted by R Totale on April 30, 2020

Eric Pickles' Bradford Revolution set off at a roaring pace. His October 1988 package of cuts stunned the city, but as Ronnie Farley put it at the time "You don't do these things twice, that's why Eric has bunged all the most unpopular measures together at once".

A year later Eric Pickles had, by his own calculations, cut £22 million from the council's budget - almost half the total envisaged in his "5 year plan".

Initial opposition was intense. Pickles had made contingency plans for an all-out strike by council workers, but that never materialised. Opposition also came from community organisations, local pressure groups, voluntary organisations and the Bishop of Bradford. But Pickles rode the early backlash with relative ease.

On the whole the Labour opposition on Bradford council proved ineffective. Their best piece of work was, without doubt, their onslaught on the Tory backed school meals buyout plan. Even here there remain many serious questions that need to be answered. The whole business smacks of corruption and Eric Pickles' portly presence looms large at the centre of the entire scandal. Labour's Education spokesman John Ryan is right in his call for a full and open investigation into the affair.

When Pickles embarked on his "revolution" he knew he could count on the government to back him all the way. Indeed, once he had taken control, government money suddenly began to flood into the city. Government ministers made little attempt to hide the fact that this cash was made available because of Pickles' take-over. On March 15th 1989, Inner Cities minister David Trippier, on a visit to Bradford, announced a £4.5 million government grant for the city. He said;

"We believe Bradford council in the hands of the Tories will promote urban regeneration and economic development in a way that could never have been seen from a local authority controlled by the Socialists and I am now content that we are going to receive applications from councillor Pickles for City Grants to fund a number of major schemes in the city."

The government has stepped in on a number of issues to help Pickles out of his difficulties.

In July 1989 the Department of the Environment unveiled a new scheme for calculating council rents. The formula, as it stood, would have meant Bradford tenants benefiting from an average rent CUT of £7.27 a week - more than reversing Pickles' rent increases. Embarrassed D.o.E. officials were quick to add a lower limit to their formula - producing a minimum INCREASE of 95p a week.

Similarly, Pickles' close friend Christopher Chope MP, Nicholas Ridley's successor at the D.o.E., stepped in to reduce Bradford's initial Poll Tax charges from a projected £350 to around £270 per person. Even so, the majority of Bradford's citizens look set to find themselves worse off under this disastrous government scheme.

Indeed, the Yorkshire and Humberside Low Pay Unit produced a report in November 1989 which claimed that the poor will end up paying up to 4 times as much of their income as the better off. The report also stated that, in its first year of operation, the Poll Tax will result in a massive switching of resources, with the North losing £32 million whilst the prosperous South East will benefit by £780 million. Low Pay Unit director Chris Pond said; "The Poll Tax works like Robin Hood in reverse. Money is being taken from the poor to give to the rich."

Striking examples of this trend can be seen. Bradford's Asian community, who generally draw the least from the city's Social Services because of the support provided by the traditional extended family network, are set to suffer particularly acutely for that very reason. This will be compounded by the fact that the city's Asian population is generally concentrated in the poorer, low rated inner city areas. Ironically, a report of October 1989 drawn up by a council official and named "Future Trends", indicated that the extended family network was likely to break down in the coming years, consequently putting a greater strain on the city's Social Services. The Poll Tax will almost certainly accelerate that process.

But others living in the more expensive posher areas of the district are set to profit from the new tax. Calculations show that, for instance, Social Services and Strategic Housing supremo Margaret Eaton can expect a £1000 a year windfall courtesy of the new Tory Poll Tax.

The coming Poll Tax has long been a major influence on Eric Pickles' strategy to cut costs. The Tories' political future locally depends on Pickles' success.

But the Poll Tax remains universally unpopular. Along with measures like the privatisation of water, it is one of the key issues which has led to a nationwide slump in Tory support. Radical right-wing Tory ideology has long since outstripped any concept of fairness.

That national slump in Tory support is bound to be reflected in the local elections of May 1990.

On paper at least Bradford's Tory group should expect to come out of those elections with a clear majority. Of the 30 seats due to be fought, only 11 are presently held by the Tories and most of those are unassailably "safe".

Labour, on the other hand, have 19 seats up for grabs. Most of those are extremely "marginal" and include nearly all the gains Labour made in 1986 when they won by a landslide.

If the Tories don't end up with a clear majority, then it will be a disaster indeed for Eric Pickles.

Since the beginning of 1989 the Bradford Revolution seems to have run out of steam. When, in November this year, I mentioned it to one senior Tory councillor, he said; "what revolution's that then, the one we're still waiting for?"

This failure can be put down to Eric Pickles' over ambitious timetable. He had hoped to have his major council restructuring programme and his mass privatisation strategy fully operating by April 1990. The rush to succeed resulted in the shambles highlighted in the Coopers & Lybrand report of October 1989.

Pickles' management practice reorganisation and promise to pass officer decision making "down the line" has also largely failed to materialise. One disillusioned former "Colonel" told me this was because "Pickles bottled out". Yet the new Chief Executive Richard Penn was happy to use this "phantom" reorganisation to justify a further drop in public accountability. When I asked him in July 1989 how much ratepayers' money had recently been spent on hiring various outside consultants, he replied;

"...the facility to appoint consultants as contained in Financial Regulations allows each appropriate officer to exercise professional expertise based on relevant information available to them and relies on that professional judgement to obtain the best outcome. I do not have the information you request. However, concurrent with greater flexibility comes the requirements that appropriate officers in retrospect may have to substantiate the process they went through and account for their decisions."

I underline the key sentence because it takes some finding.

And what of the future for Eric Pickles himself?

There is little doubt that his actions and experience in Bradford will bring him a lucrative future in the burgeoning "consultancy" field, which promises rich rewards as public services nationwide are privatised. He looks set to follow his friends and mentors like Christpher Chope MP and Marcus Fox MP in this respect.

It has also long been suggested that the Tory party have a safe Parliamentary seat lined up for their favourite council leader. Pickles has always dismissed this - to British journalists at least.

For instance, when asked about this in March 1989 by the Observer's Paul Routledge, Pickles said he had no parliamentary ambitions and in the future "I will tend my rose garden and dream of times past". Yet 3 months earlier, in response to the same question posed by Canadian journalist John Gray, Pickles said that he certainly did have parliamentary ambitions; "It's either that or sitting back in my garden and growing roses. I certainly don't wish to be Lord Mayor of Bradford in 20 years."

In any case, there is no chance of Eric Pickles retiring to tend his rose garden. For one thing, he doesn't have one.